Oscar's elegant home – in a shopping mall

Memo to Nicole, Halle, Sissy, Renee, and Judi: Think Scarlett O'Hara. After all, the restrooms in the Oscars' new home are built to allow two women in hoop skirts to pass each other without so much as touching.

Don't forget the parasols, either. The facilities are located outside the ballroom, over a couple of open-air concrete ramps.

And for those who don't win or become bored during the ceremonies, there's the Gap, Brookstone, or even a Burger King to duck into.

In a dramatic return to Hollywood, Oscar's new home at the Kodak Theatre is located in the belly of a suburban shopping mall, the Hollywood & Highland project, named for the streets it straddles.

"For our night, it won't look like that," says Ric Robertson, executive administrator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). "We will wrap or drape in one attractive way or another the commercial element."

While viewers might think Sunday night is just about the Oscar winners, the locals know better.

Behind the scenes, residents and developers are holding their breath about the future of a $615 million project designed to lure Oscar home permanently and revive a part of town that has become a haven for runaways and drug dealers.

"The vision of the place was for the metaphor to have authentic meaning," says Beth Harris, director of marketing for the developer, TrizecHahn. "We wanted Oscar to come back."

The Academy hasn't held the Oscar ceremonies in the real Hollywood since 1929, when it lasted all of 15 minutes, hardly long enough for a self-respecting celebrity to exit a limo these days.

Whether the shoe will fit or drop remains to be seen.

As is so often the case in this industry town, the devil is in the details.

The $94 million Kodak Theatre, designed for the Oscar ceremonies, is pure nostalgia. It resembles a 1920s movie palace with stacked opera boxes.

"What I like about this space," says singer Barry Manilow, who performed at the theater last December, "is there isn't a bad seat in the house."

Architect David Rockwell says he designed the theater more vertically to keep a close relationship between performers and the

entire house, even the highest seats. "Warmth and intimacy," is the goal, he says.

But that audience bonding may come at the cost of disgruntled Oscar voters.

The Kodak seats a mere 3,300, down from roughly 4,000 at the Shrine Auditorium. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has had to notify its voting membership that many who want tickets will be turned away.

The stage is big by theater standards. But the demands of the Oscar telecast – the biggest awards show aired on TV with a nearly $16 million budget – are much larger. Stage left is small, which means the entire show must load from the right.

"What happens when we need to move one set in and another out?" says Matthew Guzman, acting head carpenter in the new theater. "This may be built for the Oscars, but it's not big enough for them." He points to additional technical weaknesses such as a six-foot loading dock, which will be cramped.

"We'll find a way to do it," Robertson says.

Size isn't an issue for the ballroom next door, which is nearly as spacious as a football field. Designated to host the post-Oscar Governor's Ball, it is appropriately modeled after an evening gown.

Five thousand yards of imported red and yellow Swiss fabric drape the walls, creating the look of a vivid orange sunset.

The art-deco carpet echoes a 1920s woman's handbag. Five hundred ounces of pewter leaf cover acoustical panels to allow for noise control within broadcast standards – the only known use of this technique in North America, architect Diana Wong says.

"It's four times the weight of gold leaf," she adds. The ballroom also sports a wraparound outdoor balcony with some of the best views of Hollywood.

But while all this cruise-ship luxury is quite elegant, the ballroom's crowning glory is actually the ceiling.

It is a technician's dream, raised to provide a high ceiling 800 feet above catwalks to support lighting, loudspeakers, and special-effects equipment.

One observer at a ballroom preview was heard saying, "Looks like just another big ballroom to me, but no question, that ceiling is one of a kind."

Does any of this mean Oscar might be getting cold feet about its new home?

"We have a 20-year contract," Robertson says. But it has plenty of "out" clauses, says AMPAS spokesman John Pavlik. In the first few years, there are a number of "triggering items," which would allow AMPAS to leave.

"People in the retail center have to maintain their quality, the economic vitality has to stay put," Mr. Pavlik says.

But they don't need a reason for long.

"After five to seven years," he says, if the shoe doesn't fit, it's easy for Oscar to walk away.

Tinseltown trivia

• The gold-plated Oscar award was simply called the statuette until 1931, when Academy librarian Margaret Herrick said the male figure "looks like my Uncle Oscar!" The name stuck. Designed by Cedric Gibbons, the figure holds a sword and stands on a reel of film.

• The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, founded in May 1927, introduced the awards program to improve the negative image of the film industry.

• "Wings" was the first Best Picture Oscar winner in 1928.

r "All About Eve" (1950) and "Titanic" (1997) received the greatest number of Oscar nominations ever: 14.

• "Ben Hur" (1959) and "Titanic" have won the most awards: 11 each.

• China has the most movie theaters in the world: 65,000. The US has the second greatest number at 37,185.

• Judy Garland's ruby slippers ("The Wizard of Oz") are the most expensive film memorabilia ever sold at auction: $666,000 in 2000.

Source: "The Top 10 of Everything 2002" (Dorling Kindersley)

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